Interview by Maya Renee Castro
Creative Direction & Photography by Joana Meurkens and Taylor Mew
Editing by Taylor Mew
Renee Harrison is a Jamaican born actor and content creator. She also founded a digital curation of culture and resources for Black women-identifying theater artists, called Black Girls Do Theater. For my last feature of 2020, it was great to talk to an old classmate, friend and someone I truly admire. It was such a lovely interview that we almost talked for two hours! In this interview, Renee and I talk about everything from growing up, to code switching and the future of theater.
Let’s start by telling me about yourself…. what’re your pronouns? Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
I’m Renee Harrison, my pronouns are she/her, I was born in Kingston, Jamaica, but I grew up here in East Orange, New Jersey. I’m an actor and the founder of Black Girls Do Theater, which is an online curation of culture and resources for black women identifying theater artists. And I would say that my work falls at the intersection of art and civic engagement, thinking about the ways in which we use art and storytelling to sort of further the moral progress, the moral standing of the world even so.
How did the understanding of your cultural heritage help you as you learned about yourself growing up?
My cultural heritage is very much a part of me. It’s the foundation of who I am. I’m Jamaican. Both my parents are Jamaican, all of my family is pretty much Jamaican and so they passed along many of their principles and understandings of the world. I’ve been able to mix and merge these principles with what I’ve experienced here in America and living my own life. I would definitely say that it’s built the foundation for which all the other experiences or all the other learned traits stand on. I know when I’m going to keep something with me or let it fly off to the wind.
Are you first generation?
I was born in Jamaica. I guess being first generation means you were the first one born here in America. I always had trouble understanding that. My mom migrated here when I was three years old in 1999. My dad has dual citizenship between the United States and Jamaica. My grandmother and my grandfather on my mom’s side do as well, but my grandfather on my dad’s side doesn’t have U.S. citizenship. I think my sister would definitely be considered to be first generation because she was born here.
What was it like growing up with immigrant parents?
I definitely see the difference in the way that I was raised, the things that I had to do and the things that I couldn’t do in comparison to some of my Black American friends. It would be little things like not being able to sleep over at a friend’s house, having a limit on how long a friend could be over. My parents were selective about which friends could come over at all or even having to be a certain age to have friends over. There were these little things about how I should act in relationships with other people. There were of course household things like cleaning. There are many things that are specific to being raised by non-American parents, but they weren’t negative. Of course in my adolescence, I would be like, “oh, that’s the negative that I didn’t get to hang out with my friends as often as I want to.” But now that I’m a lot older and able to make decisions for myself, I have a sense of discernment that lets me know what people I want to let into my space and how sacred that is. With my parents even knowing, they inherently taught me about energy, creating a space, keeping a home and what it really means to have a space that is safe. They taught me that you have the power to let people into that space and you also have the power to say no.
Yeah, it’s funny, when you’re a child, you think all these things are horrible. Then you grow up, you get some perspective and you’re like, “actually, thank you for teaching me that.” Do you still live in New Jersey or are you somewhere else now?
Yes, I live in Jersey. I just moved away from home. I’ve decided that I don’t want to live in New York City until I’m making bank every year, you know what I’m saying? And even then, I’d probably live in Brooklyn. But for the most part, I love New Jersey’s proximity to New York. I also love the fact that I can come here and there’s a community. There are sidewalks, there are homes, there are trees, there is the sun. I can look up into the sky.
Did you grow up around a lot of people who looked like you?
East Orange is a predominantly Black community. I basically grew up around other Black individuals who weren’t necessarily African-American, because there’s also a large community of Caribbean American people in the area as well. I did grow up around people who look like me. When I traveled to other communities it was different. I remember taking a dance class in the city. It was one of my first times really interacting with or being in communal spaces with people who did not look like me and that was pretty interesting. It wasn’t bad, it was just new.
When did you start interacting more with people different from yourself? How did navigating those experiences as a Black person impact you?
College was when it really changed. I remember the first day of undergrad. I was excited to be living with my friend who went to Parsons. We both came from the same high school. We were looking online on Instagram to see who got accepted to the New School for Drama, trying to gather some of the faces. And there weren’t many. During Orientation Week and I was like, “Oh OK, this is what we’re doing now”. They had split us up into four or five different groups and we had to do this group activity for the week. I was the only Black girl in my group. I was one of two women of color, the other three were white. I remember calling my high school theater teacher Mr. Lemon and asking, “Why is it that I feel so out of place all of a sudden?” He was like, “This is what the rest of your career is going to look like. You’re going to be in spaces that aren’t always going to feel familiar, with people who aren’t from similar cultural backgrounds as you and who are from a very different world.”
I’ve been thinking about code switching lately. It’s a weird concept but happens often for POC. What has your experience been like? Did you find yourself code switching in certain situations, or have you always felt confident in your identity and felt you didn’t have to?
This is a really good question because I don’t think that I ever really had to. Both my parents are Jamaican and Jamaica’s educational system works through a very British lens. The Brits, they’re sort of eloquent, they value specificity and articulation. That’s what I grew up on and that merged with home life. In school, things were a bit more casual in terms of conversation. I grew up being able to maneuver both spaces, especially a predominantly white space. Whiteness and language can be very stoic and formal, lacking a little flavor. But I learned that formality growing up. Then I also learned the more casual side of how people in my community communicated when they wanted to check in on you. How are you doing, bro? What’s going on? Code switching for me was more about learning how to interact in different spaces while staying truthful and earnest in my merged identity of Blackness rather than code switching to accommodate whiteness.
It’s interesting how society has made language fit into Black and white boxes. Were you ever called an oreo because of how you used language?
I definitely got called an Oreo in elementary school and middle school. That was what made me want to engage more with African-American vernacular English. I wanted to fit into those spaces and not be called an Oreo. Now when I walk into spaces, I think that there’s a beautiful merge within my Black identity. I don’t want to talk like a white girl. I don’t want to code switch for white people because that’s just not who I am. But I also understand the technicality of being in white spaces especially when it comes to talking business. So I merged that understanding with my potent Black identity and I show up as I am, as opposed to changing for someone else. I want to be in spaces where I feel fulfilled, but I’m not really looking to be accepted. I don’t need a seat at their table, they’re deciding where everyone’s going to sit, what everyone’s going to eat at this dinner. They’re still in control of the experience. I’d be nuts to be trying to be accepted into spaces where they don’t know how to value artists regardless of race. They don’t know how to value Black artists who are quite literally changing the landscape of theater. And I’m saying Black specifically for my experience, but there are many BIPOC or “people of color”, Latinx artists, Asian artists, South Asian artists who are actively changing the landscape of theater. They aren’t respected either. So why would I ever want to be in that space? I definitely see this being brought up in conversations about the industry and its problematic practices. COVID has allowed for all of those things to be unveiled.
Yeah, that’s the thing, I don’t want to sit at the table. I’m creating my own table now. The term “people of color” is interesting to me. At first it made sense to me, but it’s starting to feel like something that makes it easier for white people, honestly.
It’s perfect enough for them to be able to make a post on Instagram saying they support BIPOC. But where’s the specificity? There’s no intentionality in the statement. It’s just a little frosting. That’s all it is. Let’s make it look glossy and BIPOC fixed that. That’s really ridiculous. They’re the ones coming up with the phrases too, which is nuts.
I’ll use BIPOC, I’ll use POC, but these terms are not created by us and I’m praying we come up with better terms.
It’s funny that the reason why the terms BIPOC and POC exist is because it’s easy. It’s superficially specific, but when you say POC, my experience differs from yours. That’s too difficult a conversation for some people. I can only talk about my experience as a Black woman, so why would I use POC?
I agree because they don’t want to put in the work of understanding names and culture, or anything really. But let’s get back to your artistry, how did you come into your craft?
I grew up watching shows like That’s So Raven on Disney and Tyler Perry’s plays. Now I’m reflecting back on how Tyler Perry represents Black women in his work, but when I was young my family and I would watch his plays on DVD. That was my introduction to theater as an art form. There was of course the lure of television and the glamour that we assume follows the experience of being someone on TV. It was a combination of those two things. That’s what led me into pursuing theater in high school. I tried to go to middle school for acting, but the acting program was full so I ended up playing the viola for two years. I did the whole recital thing. I was so invested. But when eighth grade came around and they offered me a spot into the acting program, I said bye instrument… I’m going into the direction of what it is I want. High school is really where I got my first taste of acting performance. There were so many skills that I developed while learning to play the viola that became applicable in my theater training. I learned memorization. I learned discipline. I learned physical discipline as well from having to practice finger movements. It still influences the way that I work. When I got my taste of acting I said, “OK, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
What drives your inspiration to keep going?
I really believe God is my higher power, that’s number one. And I really believe that there are gifts from the higher power and you have the option to receive them and act on them. But it’s also a challenging concept, because it doesn’t happen by chance. It’s hard work, but it’s in favor of the goodness of the world. It’s what keeps me going. I know what I want to turn Black Girls Do Theater into. It’s not just for me, it’s for this particular community and that’s the reason why I’m still creating content for it.
What was your first experience with Theater, TV, & Film?
My introduction to theater was in high school, where I was introduced to acting, training, and the rehearsal process. It was also when I saw my first Broadway production. I don’t remember the show that we’d seen, but there are photos of my friends and I all excited sitting outside of the theater waiting to go in. All of the experiences after that have been magical in many ways. There have also been times where I’ve thought, why is this being produced? What is it about this bland show, bland production that makes you want to add it to your season? What’s going on here and what does art look like for everyone? When it comes to TV and Film, my experience is limited. I’ve only done a few short film projects. When it comes to TV, I haven’t had any television experience besides the auditioning process, but fingers crossed that I’ll book a series regular role soon. That’s what I’m manifesting right now.
Manifestation. We love to hear it. Who are some of your influences?
I love Michaela Coel. I love that she knows her power and her worth and as far as we can see, she is uncompromising in her craft. As someone who’s looking to create content, she’s also incredibly resourceful when it comes to sharing tips. She shared all the scripts for Chewing Gum on twitter about two years ago. She tweeted that she was open to taking any questions about her process. That’s a dope thing to do for people who are trying to navigate the scriptwriting process.
Another one of my influences is of course, Beyonce. Beyonce is an all around all star. She knows what she knows and she knows what everyone on her set is doing. She knows what millimeter lens she wants for a particular moment, she knows what that light’s name is. She is very specific and very intentional, and I love that. Her work ethic is to be admired just based on the caliber of work that she produces. It’s also clear that she leaves room for so much collaboration. She talks about that often and it reflects in her work. She’ll see the vision, but it’s not just her vision. They’re collaborators who come in and make it even better than what the original idea may have been.
When was the first time you felt seen or represented in the industry?
I knew that I felt represented when I was in a handful of productions written by and about Black women artists. I remember seeing a show that I was so excited to see not only because I liked the production per say, but because there was one Black woman in it and she was a dark skinned Black woman. I was going to see her and the play was happening around that. I really want to engage and see what Black actors are doing right now because I know they’re on stage. I know that they’re killing the game. Even if there’s only one Black person in the cast, I’m going to see it so I can see them, their skill and their talent.
Where do you see the theater industry heading?
I see it heading into an era of innovation. I see them hiring younger creators for content development and for digital production work because we will definitely be out of theaters for a while. Plus, young people have been killing the game when it comes to adapting to online production. We know how to use Zoom and Google Meet, we know how to use all these resources that are available. We’re learning how to put up these productions in this new space to adapt to the times we’re living in.
What systematic changes do you want to see in the theater?
I want to see new leadership. I would really love to see artistic directors who have been serving for what feels like 20, 30 years to step down from a leadership position into more of a mentorship position and allow someone a bit more adaptable to the times to take a stab at curating a season. I want to see innovation. I also want to see stories told that haven’t been filtered through white producers and their standards of whiteness.
I’d love for our readers to know more about Black Girls Do Theater. How did this idea come about and where do you see it going?
Black Girls Do Theater really began because I wanted more community in college. I wanted to know what Black women in theater were doing and in an effort to hold myself accountable, I made it public. From there it’s grown into something really magical. The community is really near and dear to my heart. It’s where conversations are happening around Blackness, artistry, being a woman and what’s happening at the intersection of these three identities. We’ve been doing giveaways and partnerships with theater companies in New York City, partnering with local artists or lesser known artists to spread information about their work and what they’re doing, because that’s really the crux of it all. Creating community is at the base of all we do. You can see what’s happening in the major theaters, but I’m also curious about what’s happening for the Black girl in Texas who is doing beautiful work but we don’t know about it when we’re in New York City at the epicenter of theater. Because we’re living in this digital age, we now have the opportunity to connect with people regardless of where they are. We also engage with theater artists who don’t fit the traditional categories of actor, director, or playwright. We talk to people who are in marketing or in casting, because those roles are art forms in and of themselves. It’s important to have conversations with Black women who also occupy those spaces and share that information with the community to remind everyone that we’re needed in all of these spaces. There are other great organizations we’ve connected with who are doing similar work like I Am A Bold Woman. They’re a Black woman led group that celebrates Black women in the performing arts. It’s amazing that we can all connect, uplift each other and share resources.
You kind of touched on this with Black Girls Do Theater, how art is used as a tool of self-expression and community. Are there other ways besides Black Girls Do Theater that you use your art to help build your community?
Art takes up about half of the bricks of the foundation of the house that I’m building when it comes to the community. With Black Girls Do Theater, theater is the art form through which we all connect, whether it’s the love of theater or appreciation. That’s the avenue through which our connections and conversations happen. It’s really the catalyst.
Do you really believe that art can help and change a movement?
I totally believe that art can change things. We have entire art programs based on the history of what has already happened in the art world. This particular moment in time is going to be studied by future generations because art is seen as the thing that best reflects the identity of a time and where we are as a culture. The incredible thing about it is that it’s almost unfiltered. So I’m not at all discouraged because I know that the art we’re creating right now is going to be such an important tool for future generations to understand exactly what was going on at this time, because the history books are going to filter it. American history by nature is going to filter it. Whiteness is going to filter it. But hopefully we are moving in the direction of where honesty can take precedence in these conversations about what has happened in this country. I definitely appreciate and acknowledge that art is and will always be a point of reference for understanding what is happening at a certain period in time.
The more and more I talk about art, the more I realize it’s importance and I think people really slack on that. It’s really sad to see that time and time again the arts are being defunded by the government, but art is what has been getting most people through this pandemic.
It’s kind of nuts that we’re watching theater on Zoom. Who would have thought that theater would ever take itself digital? They thought that it couldn’t work but these previously held limitations are being tested in real time. Yes, it can work, but with limitations. Do people always want to go look at a screen and watch actors read from their room? No, so how do we take what we’ve learned from this experience and transform it into something that is accessible and communal? There’s something very special about being in the presence of live performance, so how do you recreate that digitally? That’s the big question.
I want to talk about the crew and the people behind the scenes. Have you worked with a lot of crew or behind the scenes people who look like yourself? How has the experience been working with all an white crew versus working with a crew that’s mainly BIPOC?
It’s been a wide range of experiences and to put it within the context of race, it does factor into the work experience. That’s not to say that it’s the only factor. You can connect with the crew through music, language and their life experiences, a willingness to learn, among many others. I think that the care tends to be a little bit different. In one production I was in, I was one of two Black women on stage, maybe one out of five women of color, but I was the only dark skinned woman. It seemed like the lighting designer didn’t have much experience lighting dark skin because I remember the artistic director coming in, looking at the lighting arrangement and being like, “we should make sure that everyone can be seen on stage.” And the artistic director was Black. At that moment I thought about what it meant to be cared for in a space because I didn’t feel like I had the agency to be like, “hey, I know for a fact that you cannot see me under this dark blue light.” There is an inherently political nature of me, being the darker one of two Black women to say that. So I do think that there is a certain level of care that is different and that care comes from lived experiences, training and a willingness to learn. There definitely are white lighting designers, costume designers, and hairstylists who have learned because they care about making everyone feel beautiful or care about the way Black women are seen on stage. They prioritize that education so that they know how to accommodate all types of hair and skin colors.
You touched upon this a little bit, but can you talk more about how your identity and cultural identity have influenced your art?
It influences my ability to play. My mom is one of the most playful people I know and I’ve been realizing that more recently. It was pretty common for me to randomly burst out and dance or take up a British accent and make that my chosen identity for space. We were furniture shopping the other day and she merged her Jamaican accent with British English and it was just so playful. We knew people were looking at us like we were crazy but we didn’t care. My mother is my direct line to my cultural heritage and through her, my maternal grandmother, who is also extremely playful, as well as my great grandmother and so on. Those connections have been the driving force behind the work that I do.
Jamaica is such a beautiful country with a beautiful history and strong relationship to performance too. I’m always learning more about my history, especially how poetry and language is really the crux of the stage performance that we see. I’ve gotten into reciting poetry and creating characters through language. I wanted to do something with my mom last year where she, my cousins and other women in my family recited poetry from one of Jamaica’s most famous poets, the Honorable Louise Bennett-Coverely. I loved watching the way that they incorporated character, storytelling and varying tonality. You could tell it was a story rather than just a series of lines. Before I knew it, I was transported into another world. It’s a skill to be able to write poetry that does that, and then to be able to perform poetry in that way. That’s super impressive to me. My mom grew up doing that up, which really informs my art and also informs my relationship with my parents now.
What is your favorite TV show, movie or play?
I just started binge watching The Office. I actually watched one episode years ago. I was like, “what is this nonsense?” And then all of my friends were like, “no, really, watch it. It’s very much your sort of humor.”
It might sound nuts, but one of my favorite films is Bridge to Terabithia. It was one of the first films that helped me to understand what it means to pursue life. The young woman in the film was fearless. Even though it ended up being her demise, the idea of going out there and doing what you want made me cry a lot. It helped me understand my own emotions regarding my relationship to death.
My favorite play right now is Blks by Aziza Barnes. I didn’t get to see when it was at MCC Theater, but I read the play and it’s just so real and honest. It really shows Black girls living and the language doesn’t feel forced. Aziza Barnes creates a lot of diversity in the characters and I really love that.
Is there a TV show or a movie that you can recommend that has a Black female lead in it?
Premature by Zora Howard on Hulu. And I May Destroy You by Michaela Coel.
Last question: what do you hope the audience or reader takes away from your work?
Intention more than anything. It’s OK to take your time to make the thing, to be patient, focused and intentional. I’m not in competition with anyone but myself. I’ve learned to grant myself grace and time to let the work live. The way that I see that manifest the most is in the work that I do in the theater. I am not in a rush to just push out content for the sake of beating Instagram’s algorithm. I am in this beautiful space where I get to also engage in my community outside of Instagram and that’s why in many ways the following keeps growing. We might not be posting on Instagram all the time, but we are at that Zoom reading or at that conversation. We are going to these events that just don’t exist on this singular platform. The only thing that I can do right now is commit to my craft and to the ideas I’ve been gifted. Everything else will follow suit.
Renee Harrison is an actor and content creator. A natural storyteller at heart, Renee is passionate about empowering Black women and Black stories through intentional, authentic, and creative content.
Black Girls Do Theater, founded in 2017, is a digital curation of culture and resources for Black women-identifying theater artists. Through online and offline activations, we share resources that increase access and inspire community amongst Black theater artists.